Prejudices, egocentrism, impositions, and intransigence

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In the world of linguistic peevery, there are several levels of hell. On the lowest reside expressions that incite some people to rage, the symptoms of which are frothing at the mouth, extreme physical revulsion, and an inclination towards violence (up to homicide) against the perpetrator. You hope that all of this is merely verbally hyperbolic, but it's nevertheless disturbing. (We've posted on Language Log a number of times about word rage.)

One circle up are the cringe expressions, which merely make some people shrink back, but not puke or attack with weaponry. (Again, we've posted a number of times on Language Log about cringe words.)

And then we have the circle of prejudices, expressions that some people merely disapprove of.

(Some of these dislikes are widely shared, disseminating from one person to another or through advice givers of one sort or another. Others are more idiosyncratic, apparently arising from individual experiences with the expressions in question, which gave rise to unpleasant associations — a topic I hope to blog about eventually. There are people, for example, who dislike frankly as a sentence adverbial.)

A little while back, Jan Freeman posted on her Boston Globe column "The Word" on prejudice against foreground as a verb.

She led with a reader protesting against the appearance of the verb in the paper ("One of the Globe's reporters invented a word", which Freeman pegged as a case of the Recency Illusion), and she then mentioned an objection to the verb in a comment about Stanley Fish's use of it on his New York Times blog (from someone who maintained he had to read Fish's sentence three times to make sense of it).

Freeman did a good job of confronting the Recency Illusion (the usage has a long history, in respectable sources, and is even commonplace in some contexts — as a technical term in linguistics, in particular), and she was (politely) dubious about the reader having so much difficulty in figuring out what Fish meant by his use of foreground.

Freeman concluded with an observation echoing things that have often been said on Language Log:

I've seen foyer, ointment, egg, and supple on a list of hated words. But where did we get the notion, shared by my reader and Fish's, that our personal dislikes should govern some other adult's vocabulary? It's a mystery of the modern age of peevery.

There are two effects here. One is a close relative of grammatical egocentrism: in this case, someone seems not to understand that their dislikes are in fact personal. I often find it hard to credit that some people haven't noticed that other people don't share their attitudes and behaviors, but the drive to take yourself as the measure of all things seems to be strong: my practice is the norm. So some of the time, I'll attribute such responses to cluelessness.

The second effect is a darker one: the position that your own practices (whether recognized as personal or assumed to be normative) should be imposed on everyone. (I'm talking only about grammar and usage here, though there are obviously wider resonances.) Here, Jan Freeman, the Language Loggers, and many others rise up in protest: you're not the boss of us. You have no right to tell us what to do. You might judge us to be fools or buffoons or oafs, and I suppose that's a shame, but we're not here to please you.

Of course, it's delicious when (as so often happens) someone proposes to impose a usage on the grounds of correctness, though in fact the usage is standard. A case in point: commenter Irene on Geoff Pullum's "Sarah gobsmacked …" posting:

… to me "no one" stands for "not one" and takes a singular verb. If you don't like, "None of us is going", then say, "We are not going" or "Not one of us is going."

(to which Geoff of course replied scathingly).

There's a third effect, brought up by the commenter on Fish: some readers (and hearers) have so much internalized their personal practices (or what they've been taught) that they seem (or affect — it's hard to tell) to have become unable to read (and listen) outside of these. Fish's reader just can't parse foreground as a verb, though he should have been able to work it out on the basis of hundreds or thousands of other verbings he's experienced, even in the unlikely event that the verb foreground hadn't come past him a number of times before.

Other people tell me they "can't understand" sentences with "double negation" ("I didn't see no cat"), because such examples "mean the opposite" of what their users mean (how do these people know what the users of double negation meant?), despite the fact that almost all speakers of English have been exposed to clearly interpretable examples of double negation many thousands of times during their lives.

Some people tell me that the have trouble understanding sentences that begin with the adverbial connective however ("However, the case is closed"), because they take initial however to be a concessive WH-clause introducer ("However you look at, the case is closed") and then have to correct this misinterpretation.

Such people are suffering from the folie of intransigence, a willful failure to understand. It's uncooperative: instead of working to understand what other people are trying to say, such people are dismissing what others say. It's pig-headed: instead of learning new things about the language from what other people say, such people are simply rejecting the evidence. And, like imposition, it's rude.

(In some ways, it's remarkable to see intransigence directed against someone like Stanley Fish. Stigmatized usages tend to get the brunt of the criticism — though there are cases like the sentence-initial connective adverbial however.)

Surely very few people are generally egocentric, given to rigid imposition, and intransigent. That would constitute some sort of pathology. Instead, it looks to me like particular people have fixed on a few specifc cases, probably in random fashion: someone noticed some specific example that rubbed them the wrong way, and then formulated a more general objection: a prejudice, a cringe judgment, or full-blown rage. It seems likely to me that some (though not all) of the proscriptions in the advice literature started out in similar fashion. It's just that the complainer had a pulpit to preach from.

What I'm suggesting is that some of this is just sunspots.

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